As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.
In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.
The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”
Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.
And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.
Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.
But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.
In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”
Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”
But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.
It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.
Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.
Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.
What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.
Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”
But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.
In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.
I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.